This roller-coaster season for the Gators bullpen reached a new peak Saturday at Florida Ballpark.
After a wild back-and-forth game against No. 2 Arkansas (23-7, 8-4), freshman reliever Blake Purnell took the mound with a 9-7 lead in the ninth.
“Throw strikes,” Purnell said about his mindset. “Get my team off the field as quickly as possible.”
His team was on the verge of a massive upset series win over the Razorbacks, and it was up to him to deliver it.
Purnell came through with a 1-2-3 ninth, and Florida (21-11, 5-7) took to the field to celebrate a crucial series victory.
“It’s the greatest feeling ever, because everybody has faith in you,” Purnell said about seeing his teammates pour out of the dugout following the win.
The Gators fell behind in the series with a disastrous 9-0 loss that felt something like rock bottom Thursday. They bounced back Friday with an offensive outburst behind a strong start from right-hander Brandon Sproat to even up the series.
On Saturday, it was once again the offense that delivered in a big way to close out the upset. You could hear roars emerging from the Florida locker room while walking around the bowels of Florida Ballpark after the game.
This one clearly meant a lot to the program.
“That was the most fun series I’ve ever played in,” junior catcher BT Riopelle said.
It says something about the program head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has built at Florida that the Gators were able to steal this series. Having lost six in a row in the SEC entering Thursday, Florida was on the verge of a disastrous season.
O’Sullivan said they had an emotional talk before Thursday’s game to get their mindsets in the right place. He spoke to the expectations the program has and how it contributed to this weekend’s success.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” O’Sullivan said. “I expect us to win the series.”
Riopelle said the series win lightens things up in the locker room and creates momentum going forward.
“It’s a turning point for us,” Riopelle said. “We [already] have all the confidence in the world in ourselves… now we have a little bit more.”
Florida freshman starting pitcher Brandon Neely looked sharp early, retiring the first eight batters he faced. He got himself into a small jam with two outs in the third, but was able to escape via a fly ball to right.
That set the Gators up to break the game open and they did in a big way. After getting multiple runners on in each of the first two innings but failing to score, UF finally got out to a lead in the third.
Second baseman Colby Halter led off the inning with a single, then sophomore right fielder Sterlin Thompson brought him around with a one-out single of his own. Following a single by sophomore left fielder Wyatt Langford, Riopelle stepped to the plate and launched a 419-foot bomb deep into the Dizney Grove in right-center.
The Gators were out to a 4-0 lead and seemed primed to cruise home.
However, Neely began to falter in the very next half-inning. After letting a run in from a couple singles, he loaded the bases thanks to another single and a walk.
Facing Arkansas left fielder Zack Gregory with two outs and the bases loaded, Neely seemed to escape when he fired in two consecutive pitches that looked to everyone in the park like strikes.
Except for one person: the home plate umpire.
After escaping both times, Gregory lined a full-count pitch to right field for a double. With all the runners off on the pitch, the bases cleared easily and just like that the game was tied.
In the bottom of the fifth, Florida would retake the lead thanks once again to their stars. This time it was Fabian and Thompson leading off with singles, then who else but Langford coming through with a three-run homer.
“[Langford’s] a really, really good player, but he’s a self-made player,” O’Sullivan said. “We use him as an example for the other players.”
The Trenton, Florida, native has been the Gators’ best all-around hitter this season, and that home run was his 12th on the season. Langford sits one behind Fabian for the team lead.
With that 12th home run, the Gators become one of two teams in the country that have two players with over 12 home runs. With Riopelle’s ninth earlier, they became the only team in the country with three players that have hit nine home runs or more.
The Razorbacks chipped away in the sixth, managing to score two runs off right-hander Ryan Slater despite having just one hit in the inning. Slater used a magic act to escape, after walking in a run and nearly hitting another guy to bring in the tying run.
He struck out Arkansas right fielder Chris Lanzilli with the bases loaded to hold onto Florida’s lead by a thread.
It was Gregory who came through in a big way again in the eighth. The junior took Slater deep and cleared the berm in right field to tie the game. It felt like Slater was left in for one too many batters, as he had been flirting with trouble for a while.
While the long ball did the job early for Florida, it was small ball that gave them the lead late. After sophomore Josh Rivera laid down a bunt and got to second on a throwing error, sophomore designated hitter Mac Guscette laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Rivera to third.
Freshman Deric Fabian then ripped one to center field, the ball just hung up for Arkansas center fielder Braydon Webb and Rivera got in under the tag to take the lead. The older Fabian, junior Jud, would provide a big insurance run with a single to left to open up a two-run lead.
Things do not get any easier for Florida looking ahead. They go on the road to Tallahassee, Florida, to face the No. 20 Florida State Seminoles Tuesday, then to Nashville this weekend to face the No. 16 Vanderbilt Commodores Friday through Sunday.
“We cannot get too far ahead of ourselves,” O’Sullivan said. “If we don’t play well next weekend we could be right back in the same spot.”
Contact Ethan Budowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.